Green lightning: Is it real, and what does it mean?

Green lightning is a rare weather phenomenon that some people have been lucky enough to witness. It’s almost the same as lightning, except its color is an eerie green. There’s a simple theory behind it, as well as some misconceptions.

Let’s dive right in!

Real green lightning

Source: National Geographic

The only time green lightning has actually been photographed was when the Chaiten volcano in Chile erupted, spewing a cloud of ash into the sky.

Volcanic ash commonly has lightning bolts in it, a phenomenon known as volcanic lightning – except this time, the plume of ash had an eerie green lightning bolt in.

This remarkable photograph was captured by Carlos Gutierrez.

Arthur Few, a scientist from Rice University seems to have solved the question of why green lightning was only seen here and not elsewhere.

Is green lightning common?

According to Arthur Few, green lightning is actually far more common than we realize. We just don’t see it all the time because it usually happens inside the cloud rather than outside.

The green lightning is a streamer, or a channel of positively charged molecules that is attracted to an area of negatively charged molecules. When the two channels meet, the circuit is completed and energy is discharged.

As for the green color, that’s most likely due to oxygen molecules being supercharged by the energy from the bolt, then losing the extra energy.

As lightning jumps from one area of a cloud to the other, there are probably plenty of streaks of green lightning – but since the ice crystals that are the reason for the static charge buildup are inside the cloud, we don’t see the bolt of lightning.

It was visible in the ash cloud because the ash particles(which collide and generate static charge) are on the outside of that cloud.

Arthur Few suggests that if we were able to see inside of clouds, we may be able to see green lightning more often.

Things that seem like green lightning

Perhaps not qualifying exactly as green lightning, a related phenomenon is a green flash that sometimes occurs during severe weather. This is actually known as a power arc.

A power arc is when a high voltage power line is short circuited, resulting in an arc of electricity. This arc only lasts a few seconds, since most power lines have some sort of safety mechanism built in to mitigate damage from these short circuits.

These shorts are incredibly powerful and bright, and can involve tens of thousands of amperes. The arcs can be blue, green, turquoise, and even orange – which is why many people report seeing “the sky turn green”.

Often this short knocks out power, so a green flash is also associated with a loss of power in that area.

The arcs are sometimes referred to as “exploding transformers”, though transformers are not always responsible. An arc can be caused by any simple short circuit, whether the wind causes to power lines to touch, a wet branch bridged two lines, or a squirrel was unfortunate enough to walk across and bridge the circuit.

If this phenomenon is caused by lightning, it is known as a “flashover”. Flashovers are when lightning causes bridging between two power lines or a well grounded object, resulting in a very bright – sometimes as much so as lightning – flash of light coming from the ground and going up.

Green skies and tornados

There seems to be some folklore in tornado-prone areas that a green sky is indicative of a tornado.

This seems to be more of correlation than causation!

The hues we observe in the sky are due to the way white light from the sun is scattered throughout the atmosphere. On a typical, clear day, the violet and blue spectrum is scattered the most, which is why we observe the sky to be blue.

The light from the sun during sunrise or sunset has to travel a much greater distance through the atmosphere, so even more spectra are scattered, leaving us to perceive the last colors of the rainbow: yellow, orange, and if it’s really hazy, red.

Researchers have found that the sky can turn green during thunderstorms if the storm cloud is aligned with a setting or rising sun, and you’re at the right angle to observe it.

It simply influences the way the light scatters, that’s all.

As for green skies meaning tornados, well, green skies usually indicate a large, tall thundercloud, and those are commonly associated with tornados and hail.

Does a green sky mean a twister is definitely headed your way? No. But are you going to be in for some stormy weather? Quite possibly!

Suggested reading: 12 Awesome Earth Science Experiment Ideas For Classrooms or Projects

15 thoughts on “Green lightning: Is it real, and what does it mean?”

  1. Pretty nice post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and
    wanted to mention that I’ve really loved browsing your blog posts.
    After all I’ll be subscribing for your feed and I am hoping you write once more soon!

  2. Great to see and answer to a question is literally a type away. Thank you for sharing your wisdom on this platform and doing this study previously. Currently in Bossier City Louisiana and we’ve got some weather change. Keep up the great work.

  3. Green clouds with lightening last night in Dallas. We were watching from the back patio … literally just blocks north of the tornado (we had no idea the tornado was so close.)

    • Hi Lori. I’m glad you’re OK. I’m in the Dallas area too, and we were so nervous. I had my kids stayed in the downstairs bathroom for a while. The tornado sirens went off most of the night.

  4. Twice during a thunder storm i have seen green balls of energy. Since this was in North West Kansas, there was no volcanic activity. I saw both of them high in the clouds and nowhere near an electrical line or transformer. Both were many years ago and they were during different storms.

  5. I saw a green clouds with a green lightening flash last night at around midnight.I was with my Uber guy just outside my fence,I was so scared coz av never seen such a thing in my entire life.I asked the Uber guy if he had seen wat happened n he told me he saw it and he was also scared.after paying the Uber bills I open the gate ran to my house n closed the door.I was so so scared

  6. I saw green lightning during a very unusual snowstorm roughly 30 years ago. My brother and I were walking from work to the restaurant where the staff Christmas party was held, roughly one mile from work. The snow started just as we left. There was no snow on the ground at the beginning of our trek, but the snowfall was so heavy that we were struggling through snow halfway up to our knees by the time we reached the restaurant just fifteen minutes later. The two of us looked like cartoon characters with piles of snow accumulated on our hats and shoulders. To top things off, it was a thundersnow. The snow was too heavy for me to see actual bolts of lightning, but the flashes were all green! I had to stop a few times to be certain I wasn’t just seeing the reflections of traffic lights in the heavy snowfall, but it wasn’t traffic lights. It was lightning. (unless traffic lights can light up the entire sky, and are followed by thunder)
    That was the only time I have ever experienced green lightning.


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